Commentaries on Deuteronomy 4:32-34,39-40, Romans 8:14-17, Matthew 28:16-20
TODAY’S FEAST is one which many preachers would prefer not to have to talk about. What can one say that is meaningful about such an abstract concept as the Holy Trinity? In one sense, of course, they are right. It was the great St Thomas Aquinas who said that it was much easier to say what God was not than what he is. In other words, every positive statement made about God has to be immediately denied. If we say God is “good”, it is obviously true but our concept of “goodness”, however exalted, is so limited that God’s “goodness” cannot remotely correspond to our limited concept of it. And so of every other attribute applied to God.
When it comes, then, to speaking of the meaning and inner relationship of three “Persons” in one God we are floundering in territory where ordinary human language is totally inadequate to express the reality. Our God can only be reached in the “cloud of unknowing”, as Julian of Norwich so beautifully expressed it. God is not any of the things we say he is. It is, as Fr Anthony de Mello used to put it, something like trying to explain the colour green to a person who has been totally blind since birth.
No getting off the hook
However, we should not try to get off the hook too easily and decide to speak or think about something altogether different on this Sunday. Provided we are aware of God’s basic unknowability by our limited minds, there are still many helpful things we can consider about our God and the inner relationships which are part of his* being.
While it is of the utmost importance that we realise this, there are many statements we can make which will help in our relationships with God.
To go back to Thomas Aquinas again, one of his basic principles was that “Behaviour is determined by the nature of things” (Agere sequitur esse). From the way things act we know something about what they are. We can thus distinguish the different natures of minerals and other non-living substances, plant life, bacterial and viral life, animal life, human life from the different ways in which each is able to function and react. We normally will not confuse a cow and a horse, a bird or a bat, a shark or a whale, a gorilla or a human being. It is not simply their appearances that are different. We realise that each has certain capabilities and that those capabilities arise from the way they are essentially constituted in their inner being. We don’t expect animals to talk as humans do, except in TV cartoons. We don’t expect snails to run in the Derby or the Grand National or horses to fly.
And, in our daily rubbing shoulders with other people, the only way we can know them is by what they reveal of themselves through their behaviour and interactions. We say they ARE kind, because they consistently behave in a way that is kind. Or they ARE cruel, again because of what is perceived as consistently cruel behaviour. “By their fruits you will know them,” said Jesus. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, or a bad tree good fruit” – because agere sequitur esse.
A level of unknowability
At the same time, while we may feel we can know a lot about people from their behaviour (and do not hesitate to pass judgement!), we can by no means know everything. Every human being, indeed as science constantly discovers, every created thing is a mystery whose innermost reality is really impossible for us to penetrate totally. And that even applies to our own selves. We do not know ourselves totally. We are a mystery to ourselves – and, a fortiori, to others!
If this is true of created reality, we should not be surprised to face the same dilemma with the Creator. God, in his deepest being, is a mystery we cannot ever fathom. This is not just a “cop out”; it is a fact. Nevertheless on the basis of what God DOES we do get some very clear indications of what he IS. Agere sequitur esse applies to God also.
What the Scripture tells us
And it is in the Christian (New) Testament especially that it has been revealed to us that there are three Persons in our one God. What it means to have three Persons in one Being is something we do not even try to understand. But we can get some inkling if we confine ourselves to seeing what each of the persons DOES as a clue to what they ARE.
In Greek classical drama in the time of Jesus and earlier, the actors put on a mask to indicate the role they were playing (not unlike the elaborate painting of the face in Chinese opera). The Greek word for this mask was prosopon (proswpon, literally, ‘in front of the face’) and the Latin translation was persona (that through which the sound of the speaker’s voice came).
So, speaking analogically, we can say that in our God there are three masks, three personae, three roles pointing to three separate sources of action. This is not an explanation. It is a groping effort to get some understanding. Those three roles are that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit acting from one single Source.
We see God as Father, a loving and compassionate Father. Not a daunting patriarchal figure but one that is easily approached and who can be addressed by the familiar and intimate term Abba (Abba, compare the English ‘Papa’ or ‘Ah Ba’ in Chinese and other languages). He is the creator and giver of all life. Everything good that can be discerned in the world around us comes from him and through him. In him, through him and with him all things exist.
He is the one who cares, the one who waits for the Prodigal to return and forgives completely and immediately. He is the Father of truth, the Father of love and compassion, the Father of justice. The whole of this beautiful world in which we lives is a testimony and, at the same time, only a faint indication of what he really is. If we really look at the world he has made (and not at the one we have unmade), our hearts can only be overcome with praise and thanks.
We see God as Son, who in an extraordinary way came to live among us, and whom, in a paradox beyond all understanding, we humans killed.
In the Son as a human being, we can see, hear and touch God. We see something of the nature of our God as Jesus heals the sick, identifies with the weak and socialises with the sinful. We see him challenge the dehumanising values that form the fabric of most of our lives and, in the process, he is rejected by those he loves. Though he is God, he empties himself of all human dignity that he might open for us the way to true and unending life.
We see God as Spirit, becoming, as it were, the soul of his people. All the good that we do, all our evangelising work, our hospitals, schools, works of social development and social welfare, our care of the sick, the weak, the oppressed and the outcast – all are the work of God’s Spirit working in and through us. Wherever there is genuine loving there is the Spirit of God at work.
Growing into his likeness
And yet, being aware of all this, we still cannot say that we know our God. But there is enough here – if we pray and reflect on it – that is already overpowering in its significance.
We need to remember that we have been called to be and to grow into the image of God himself. In what has been revealed to us through Jesus and the Scriptures, we have more than enough to challenge us and to help us to approach closer to our God. Our ultimate goal, and it is the only goal for all living, is to achieve perfect union with him. We do that, above all, by loving as he loved, by loving unconditionally and continuing to love where no love, and even hate, is returned.
For this we need the creative power of the Father, the compassion of the Son, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They are all available to anyone who opens their heart to receive.
*Although God has been referred to here in male terms, we need to remind ourselves that the three persons of the Trinity are sexually inclusive of both male and female.
We need also to remember that, although Jesus as the incarnate Son is male, our Creed professes that the Second Person of the Trinity became primarily a human being (et homo factus est). The word ‘homo’, although grammatically masculine, refers to any human being: man, woman or child.